Film reviews: Dallas Buyers Club | We Are The Best

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Grittier fare makes new man of Matthew McConaughey, finds Siobhan Synnot

Dallas Buyers Club (15)

Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto pictured at the Dallas Buyers Club premiere. Picture: Getty

Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto pictured at the Dallas Buyers Club premiere. Picture: Getty

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

Running time: 117 minutes

Rating: * * * *

AT THE very start of his career, I remember Matthew McConaughey being sold to us as a sequel to Paul Newman; a twinkly, blue-eyed dreamboat with Texan sails and a knack for shucking off his shirt. Over time, he has proved himself to be nothing like Newman; first of all by making more awful romantic comedies than Newman or indeed anyone except possibly Elvis, and more recently by making edgier, flintier choices with films such as Killer Joe and Magic Mike.

At the start, Ron Woodroof seems one of his more toxic characters: a sweary, bone-skinny sex-and-drugs machine, doing coke lines, whisky and women most nights until he flakes out after an accident and wakes up in hospital. He is HIV positive, with a T cell count about to flatline and an estimated 30 days to live. The one bonus is that the doctor is surprised he’s lasted this long.

Dallas Buyers Club starts in 1985, the same year Rock Hudson died of Aids-related causes, and Woodroof doesn’t get much sympathy when his co-workers learn of his illness. When he gets home from hospital, someone has scrawled FAGGOT BLOOD on his trailer. Then again, as a casual racist and homophobe himself, in other circumstances, Ron might have helped hold the paint pot.

What’s estimable about Dallas Buyers Club is that Ron, a real person, is shown to be as surprising as true life people often are. Instead of getting his affairs in order, he reads up on his illness and chases a drug trial for a miracle medication called AZT. When he is refused a place, he bribes a medic to supply him illegally. Gradually his investigation evolves into expertise, and he sees an entrepreneurial opportunity to get into a grey market. And what could have been a downbeat drama is deftly handled by The Young Victoria’s Jean-Marc Vallée as an absorbing, even entertaining film.

Teaming up with a transsexual Aids patient (Jared Leto), forms a buyer’s club, a scheme that imports and distributes experimental drugs from Mexico, Canada and Europe and distributes them amongst subscribers, legally skirting around America’s Food and Drug Administration, which is supposed to approve the products. Woodroof smuggles a lot of the drugs and dietary supplements in himself, and solicits medical support from an earnest immunologist (Jennifer Garner) who represents hidebound hospital administration in the first half of the film, and something rather more admirable later on.

I’m not sure if the FDA took the club’s action so personally as this film suggests – does even the meanest bureaucrat have time to drive into town to gloat when a thorn in their side is about to be plucked? – but this is a really accomplished film which doesn’t trivialise its issues, preach simplistic politics or undermine its odd couple of McConaughey and Leto with sentimental platitudes.

The latter has the showier role, combining heartbreak and one-liners, but McConaughey, who lost 50 pounds to play Woodroof, is riveting to watch. Inevitably, there’s a familiar redemptive arc to Dallas Buyers Club, but the crossover to altruism is so sneakily done here that it is irresistible.

Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot

On general release from Friday

The Invisible Woman (12A)

Rating: * * *

After a striking directorial debut in 2011 with Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes returns to the director’s chair with a film that is as bloodless as Coriolanus was vital. What the Dickens went wrong?

Based on the biography by Claire Tomalin, the romantic drama chronicles the relationship between Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones). When they first meet, in a great giddy scene where actors are being encouraged by Dickens to stage a play, Nelly is just 18, while Dickens is 45, a Victorian superstar and a father of ten children.

The novelist finds the attraction invigorating both personally and creatively, but since public knowledge of the affair would destroy them both, Nelly becomes a secret: an invisible woman.

As told through Nelly, this is also a portrait of fame turning old, selfish and entitled. The performances are terrific, especially Jones, who is saddled with too many clichéd contemplative walks along beaches and through meadows, but also Joanna Scanlan as Dickens’ wife Catherine, who finds herself brutally cut off when her husband falls for Nelly, to the extent that she is walled off in one half of their family home.

It’s admirable that Fiennes and his screenwriter Abi Morgan are intrigued by and sympathetic to Victorian feminist issues, rather than beguiled by the glamour of Dickens, but the script is tepid, and Fiennes’ direction so restrained that even a train crash feels flatly sluggish. And, in the end, the invisible woman reveals too little.

We Are The Best

Rating: * * * *

This year’s Glasgow Youth Film Festival opens with Lukas Moodysson’s fresh and funny film about three Swedish misfits who form a schoolgirl punk band. Smartly told, it’s a quiet riot.

Selected release: GFT

Stand Clear Of The Closing Doors

Rating: * * * *

An autistic 13-year-old (Jesus Sanchez-Velez) gets lost in the New York subway just as Hurricane Sandy closes in on the city. Director Sam Fleischner shapes an observant account of a child’s interior life.

Selected release: GFT

Teenage (12A)

Rating: * * *

Jon Savage’s documentary of youth in the last century begins with the abolition of child labour, takes in the bright young things of the jazz age and spends too short a time on the Hitler Youth and its counterpart resistance. Tackling a huge sociological subject in less than 90 minutes, Teenage is adolescence personified: a bit superficial and spotty.

Selected release: GFT

That Awkward Moment (15)

Rating: * *

Zac Efron, Miles Teller and Michael B Jordan vow to avoid commitment and keep women at arm’s length for the purposes of calculated, charmless comedy. It’s so gruesomely laughless that even Adam Sandler could have been persuaded to turn this one down.

On general release

An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty (12A)

Rating: * * *

Filmmaker Jack Nance ponders his unrequited love for his friend Namik Minter in a freewheeling, fractured documentary that mixes archive with animation. Garrulous and a little pretentious, but also sweet, and astute enough to allow the dream girl a right of reply.

Selected release: Cameo, Edinburgh

I, Frankenstein (12A)

Rating: * *

Aaron Eckhart stars as an immortal version of Frankenstein’s monster, caught in a war between CGI gargoyles and demons. Despite Eckhart’s buffness, the creature remains a compendium of corpse parts. The same goes for Stuart Beattie’s derivative flick.

On general release